Philadelphians Tell Gov. Corbett What They Think of His Priorities

By Tara Murtha
Posted Sep. 26, 2012
Last week, Gov. Corbett was in Philadelphia to participate in a town-hall meeting hosted by conservative radio personality Dom Giordano at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You may have heard: It didn’t go well.

Security insisted that guests were not allowed to bring “large bags” or backpacks into the museum’s auditorium, but local activists—many from Decarcerate PA, Act Up Philadelphia and Fight for Philly—somehow snuck giant banners into the room anyway. And in a scenario that played out like a bizarro episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, activists leapt to their feet shouting whenever the governor—he’s the bizarro Pee-wee in this metaphor—mentioned certain things. Those triggering phrases—“voter ID,” “Marcellus Shale,” “teachers,” “education,” “pensions,” “jobs,” “death penalty,” “General Assistance cuts”—represent only some of the issues that your typical Philadelphian activist beefs with Corbett on, mind you, but they’re a good start.

It went like this: The governor said, “Marcellus Shale,” so someone yelled, “It’s poisoning our water!” A bit later, when a guest asked about 40 schools closing in Philadelphia, Corbett asked that the crowd bear with him. Someone shouted, “We’ve been bearing with you for two years!”

As protesters shouted and chanted, the governor stayed cool as a cuke—as opposed to Giordano, who’d point people out of the crowd (“This lady in the red!”) and yell for police to kick them out. With mayhem erupting all around him, Corbett would lean back, pluck a folder off the table and theatrically study the papers inside, whatever they were.

At one point, though, he broke stride and engaged with one of his angry guests. He’d been talking jobs. “The number one strategy is to try to get everyone a job,” he said. A woman shouted, “Good job!”

She was being sarcastic. Her point was that he hadn’t done a good job of creating good jobs. Corbett responded literally, as if she’d been elaborating upon his talking point: “Yes,” he said, “a good job. I agree!” Then a small smile spread across his face and he pressed his finger to his lips as if to say, “Shhhhh.”

That image—of a distant, sarcastic overlord who tunes out any objections to his decisions—pretty much sums up how many Philadelphians see Corbett. And for good reason. In the two years that Philadelphia’s been “bearing with” him, he’s made cuts that disproportionately impact Philadelphia.

Most recently, he carved $150 million out of this year’s budget by cutting General Assistance (GA) funds. GA, in effect since the Great Depression, is a last-resort, temporary assistance program. By definition, beneficiaries are “unemployable” and most are disabled. In Pennsylvania, participants in recovery programs and victims of domestic violence fleeing abusers qualified for GA with a nine-month lifetime cap. Payment varied by county, but the average payment was $205 a month. The cut went into effect Aug. 1. Approximately half of the 68,000 Pennsylvanians who relied on those funds—1 in 200—are Philadelphians.

At the town hall, when Corbett recommended that people who used to rely on GA funds should go find other programs, a social worker yelled back, “There are none!”

The crowd kept interrupting to articulate their concerns—and they were articulate, actually—until the meeting was cut short by half an hour. Just before 9 p.m., Corbett walked off stage to jeers from the crowd, which by that point was standing and chanting, “Corbett go home!” Then, more protesters gathered outside the museum’s side exit, yelling at him through the door. Police cleared the space so the governor could make his way out; the group of 70 or so people screamed as his SUV made its way past them and slipped into the Parkway traffic.

(It was all much more dramatic than the boos that had rippled through a Philly crowd the week before, when Corbett spoke at an event honoring Muhammad Ali with the Liberty Medal at the Constitution Center.)

It’s not just Philadelphians who are disappointed in Corbett. The Quinnipiac poll from July—right after the budget—showed an all-time low approval rating of 36 percent. The needle moved up 2 points in August, while Franklin & Marshall’s August poll came in with a lower approval, at 28 percent.

But Corbett isn’t likely losing any sleep over it—he admits he ignores polls the same way he ignores protesters. When asked about poll numbers last year, he said, “I always feel that the only poll that counts … will be the re-election day in 2014.”

The Breakdown is written by senior writer Tara Murtha, who regularly reports on urban violence, policy, gender, and any other social-justice issues we can think of.

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